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Familiar Diversions

I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.

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Mara, Daughter of the Nile

Mara, Daughter of the Nile - Eloise Jarvis McGraw I first read this book when I was a teen. For the longest time, all I could remember about it was that the main character got whipped within an inch of her life near the end and that her shoulders were still healing when the romantic storyline was wrapped up. I also remembered not quite liking Sheftu, but I couldn't remember why. A comment on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books reminded me of the book's title and author. My first thought was, "Must request this via ILL!" So I did.Even though it's dangerous, I like taking the occasional trip down reading memory lane - sometimes I still enjoy the books I loved when I was younger, and sometimes I can barely finish them. For the most part, I enjoyed this one. Although I think I disliked Sheftu a bit more than I would have when I was younger, all the intrigue was a lot of fun, despite some bits that strained my suspension of disbelief, and I still thought Mara was an awesome heroine.While I was reading the book, I found myself thinking that the dialogue read like something out of an old high fantasy novel - only instead of "By the Great Grimor," or whatever, you get "By Set," "By Amon," and "By the Blessed Son." I checked the copyright date and, sure enough, the book was originally published in 1953. Thank goodness I didn't know that when I was younger, or I would have avoided this book simply because it's older than my parents.Prior to rereading this, I wouldn't have been able to tell you why I enjoyed it when I was younger - I couldn't remember enough about it. I can now say with relative certainty that my younger self enjoyed this book 1) because Mara is awesome, 2) because all the intrigue is exciting, and 3) because there is romance. Now that I'm older, #1 and #2 still stand strong, but I'm a bit more iffy about #3.Mara is a slave, only 17 years old, but she never cowers fearfully from anybody - she's more likely to snarl her defiance, or glare daggers. She knows that no one in the world is going to come to save her, so she has to save herself. She doesn't go looking to become a double agent but ends up becoming one because she has to, and also because it keeps her options open. Sheftu can talk all he wants about his work being for the good of Egypt - Mara, as she is throughout most of the book, is only looking out for herself. However, she's so clever and charming that you can't help but like her.Mara might have been fun to read about all on her own, but all the intrigue gave her a chance to shine. Every time things got more dangerous and complicated for her, she used her wits and charm to talk her way out of things. And yet, she wasn't supremely confident - she knew that, if she messed up, she could die. As just a slave, she lied and stole things (there's a fun scene in which she steals honey cakes, eating them right in front of the guy she's stealing them from without him ever realizing what's going on), but it wasn't until she became a spy that she started dealing with people who were more of a match for her.One of those people is Sheftu. On the one hand, he's lived with dangerous court politics all his life, so he lives and breathes lies and treachery. On the other hand, his entire rebel operation seems to be built on a house of cards. Despite knowing that spies are all around, he takes Mara at face value and just assumes that she's a runaway slave - that seemed rather stupid to me. Then there's at least one person in his group that couldn't look more untrustworthy if he tried, and yet Sheftu trusts him enough that it's almost his downfall. It's amazing the rebel group made it as far as it did before things started to unravel.Although I enjoyed the intrigue and adventure in and of itself, I couldn't really buy what Sheftu was trying to accomplish. Yes, Hatshepsut seemed like a scary woman, liable to bankrupt Egypt - but, quite frankly, Thutmose didn't seem any more appealing. He was an arrogant, frightening man whose one moment of gentleness was after Mara was almost whipped to death protecting Sheftu and the other rebels. I suppose the main reason I never warmed to Thutmose was because of his treatment of Inanni, the Canaanite princess he was supposed to marry. As far as Thutmose was concerned, Inanni was nothing more than a fat, stupid cow, completely beneath him. Granted, Mara's initial thoughts about Inanni weren't very nice either, but she did eventually see her as a sweet person who could be a good friend - it irked me to see Thutmose treating Inanni like dirt, and his treatment of her made it that much more difficult to see why Sheftu would support Thutmose so fanatically. I ended up just telling myself that all Sheftu really wanted was to get Hatshepsut off the throne, and Thutmose was the only possible replacement.Earlier, I wrote that one of the reasons my younger self liked this book was because of the romance. Now, you would never have gotten me to admit this - I couldn't even admit to myself that one of the things I looked for in books was a romantic element. Even so, Sheftu, with his confidence, intelligence, and charisma, would have had me cheering. That said, now that I'm older Sheftu smacks too much of "old school romance hero" and Mara's reaction to him is a bit annoying.Sheftu is the sort who'll announce things like "I vow, I mean to kiss you" (I don't think this line is actually in the book, but it reads like something that could have been), which would piss Mara off, and then she'd get pissed some more if he didn't actually follow through. I already mentioned that one of the main reasons why I liked this book was that Mara is awesome. Unfortunately, around Sheftu she becomes slightly less awesome. For a good chunk of the book, their relationship seems really unequal. As a slave, Mara doesn't really have a chance with Sheftu, a member of the nobility - Sheftu could easily seduce her and then leave her to fend for herself. As strong as Mara seems in just about every other respect, she seems almost powerless against Sheftu, and, for the longest time, there's not much evidence that this runs both ways.McGraw eventually shows that Sheftu thinks about Mara as much as Mara thinks about him, and she even takes his incredible confidence down a notch by having him worry about and be jealous of Mara's flirtations with others, such as a young guardsman she seduces so as to be able to easily enter and leave the palace. Then McGraw shakes him up some more by having him almost die in an awesome grave robbery scene - I love that scene, you can practically feel the terror and tension as the group worries about their air supply, how long their torch will last, and whether or not their crime will earn them the wrath of the dead.Still, as a noble, Sheftu always has more power in this relationship than Mara. Mara even voices this when Sheftu finally, finally tells her his feelings, and she reminds him that there could never be anything lasting between them because of the difference in their statuses. It's only when Sheftu does his version of the "romance novel grovel," when he knowingly puts himself in a situation that could get himself killed in order to try to save Mara and make up for having a part in her ending up in that situation in the first place, that things become a little more even - Sheftu may be a noble, but he's no more likely to survive at the hands of his enemies than Mara.And the bit that made me still dislike him, years after I read the book and long after I could remember why I disliked him? Moments after confessing his feelings to Mara, Sheftu learns of her duplicity. Rather than considering Mara's position, that she is a slave with no options, no guarantee of protection from anyone, Sheftu immediately succumbs to rage and plans to kill her. The "romance novel grovel" was nice and all, but it still wasn't quite enough to make me forgive him, even though Mara managed to (and, in fact, never really blamed him for anything in the first place).Overall, this was an enjoyable read, in large part due to the fact that the intrigue, the strongest part of the book, was the primary focus. Had the romance been more prominent, I'm not sure I could have liked the book as much, due to my dislike for the power imbalance in Sheftu and Mara's relationship. I've read that the book's presentation of Egyptian history is pretty inaccurate, but I don't know enough about Egyptian history to say whether this is true or not. From my perspective, the book's setting was a plus, because it was unusual (I think this is the only book I've ever read set in ancient Egypt) and seemed very vivid.(Original review, with read-alikes and watch-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)